‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer

A few weeks ago, I was idly looking through my local charity shop for books. Nothing really took my fancy – I have far too many books so don’t usually buy them that whimsically – but as I was just about to leave, an amazing cover caught my eye.

The book was pretty thin, by an author I’d not heard of – later, I realised that I had two books edited by the author in my bookcase: The Steampunk Bible and the Steampunk anthology. The blurb ofVeniss Underground sounded interested, and the first page was readable and intriguing. The publisher was Tor, which gave me a lot of faith. But most of all, I fell in love with the cover art. It was so beautiful – the grungy colours and textures, the menacing interlacing of semi-abstract imagery. Yes, I bought the book based on its cover.

It was also a signed edition. I wonder why someone would go to the trouble of getting a book signed, only to give it to a charity shop.

Anyway, I started reading, and I found the protagonist a little annoying and the story a little non-nonsensical. Something about biologically engineered meerkats… okay… But I wanted to give it a chance. Flipping ahead a little, I saw that the book was divided into three unequal sections. The first was the shortest, and the last was the longest. Each section put the reader in the head of a different character. The first section was told in the first person, the second section in the second person, and the third section in the third person. Interesting, I though. I enjoy experimentation and diversity in fiction.

The second section grabbed me. I found myself deeply in the character’s head and starting to get to grips with the strange world I was in. By the third section, I was in love. The novel intensified into horrifically beautiful madness, and I was left awed by the imagination and the depth of the writing.

I don’t really know how to describe this book. It’s somewhere between science-fiction and fantasy, with a grounding in a possible distant future, but also full of impossibilities and madness, written with a convincing suspension of disbelief that gives the world the grain of truth while simultaneously being completely ludicrous. I guess it could be described as biopunk with a dash of steampunk. It doesn’t really matter what sub-genre it falls in. Essentially, it is a fantastically imaginative and beautifully written book.

Here are some of my favourite sections:

He was brittle with the weight of his humanity, and he had memories of this place… His first memories outside of the room that served as their home were of the clank-and-thrum musics of the mining machines. He soon saw them up close: monstrous black metal carapaces four, five stories high, the heat they gave off like sweat, so that they always seemed possessed of a righteous anger: to steam, to bubble, to boil. They generated a fierce light that annihilated his vision even as he adjusted to it; a corona of flame through which the machines burst through in glimpses – their bodies a black darker than night… their spokes like iridescent midnight starfish…

- ‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer, p83

Where the sculptures of saints would have been set into the walls, there were instead bodies laid into clear capsules, the white, white skin glistening in the light – row upon row of bodies in the walls, the bewildering proliferation of walls. The columns, which rose and arched in bunches of five or six together, were not true columns, but instead highways for blood and other substances: giant red, green, blue and clear tunes that courses through the cathedral like arteries.

- ‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer, p87

This gives you just a flavour of the writing and the nightmare visions within this novel. And it fills me with intense respect and intense envy. This is how I want to write. This is the kind of eloquence and vitality I want to achieve through my own stories. Discovering this kind of writing fills me with joy and inspiration, but also with a little bit of despair as I think: ‘How can I want this talent for myself when it is already so perfectly in existence elsewhere – what’s the point of that?’

But, of course, it all comes down to tapping into our own voice, telling our own stories in our own ways. I can only dream that someone, one day, will have the same sense of awe about my writing that I feel when I read novels such as this. That’s the dream.

The Hours of Creeping Night – Reviews and Sales Figures

Well, it’s been around five months since I decided to self-publish a collection of my dark speculative short stories, The Hours of Creeping Night.

I haven’t been actively promoting it, so I didn’t expect much to happen. My agent actually bought a copy before he decided to offer me representation (though the offer was more about my novel). Interestingly, both he and one of the reviewers picked out my story ‘Dead Cell’ (zombie outbreak in a prison, told from the inmates’ perspective) as the best of the selection, despite a few of my beta readers not particularlly liking the story. Just goes to show how different people enjoy different stories.

At one point, I decided to make the price on Smashwords free just to get some exposure, so Amazon matched that for two months. I checked in with the figures today – and wow! Two thousand copies were downloaded in two months, ranking the ebook #41 in the Amazon.com short story Kindle chart.

Only 74 copies were downloaded from Smashwords, and less than ten from Amazon.co.uk… So I guess the US Amazon site is the one to focus on.

Out of those two thousand copies, only two people left a review, but they were great reviews!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ What a fantastic read! 
May 23, 2012, By Meredith M.
Each story is a tiny universe to itself that explodes from the page and leaves you ink splattered and enthralled.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ Decent book
May 29, 2012, By DareT0Dream
This book is one of many short story books ive read this year. I am actually taking the time to review this book, which means I liked it enough to spend some of my time. The only reason I am giving it a 4 rather than a 5, is because i feel it should of been longer, maybe 30 pages longer. I was so close on getting my fix, that when it ended it left me “unsatisfied”. But other than that great job, i dont want to spoil it for other readers but, one story in the book Dead Cell should be made as a stand alone book.

———————

The Hours of Creeping Night is a collection of short stories that encompass the surrealism of the late hours of the night, when the coming dawn feels like an impossible dream. This 11,000 word ebook is filled with weird and morbid tales of mechanical creatures, living forests, zombies, wedigo and other monsters, while exploring the darkness of human nature in various strange fictional worlds. Read more about the stories inside…

You can buy from the following places… The pricing is a little mixed at the moment, depending on the vendor(!) Pricing correct at time of posting (18th June 12).

What is Genre?

 

Paul Cornell – a novelist, comics and TV writer, notably for Doctor Who and Action Comics – was the guest speaker at the ‘Bad Writing’ Symposium, held at King’s College London last month. He spoke about the concept of genre, its history and how we define it. It was a great talk, humorous, energetic and engaging. Cornell really knows his stuff.

I must apologise for making you wait for this post. Some of you may have noticed that my site was hacked recently, and I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying to sort it out. With the security all up to date now, the probably is hopefully solved! So without further ado, here are my notes on the talk, with my own thoughts included.

The purpose of genre

  1. To let people buy more of the things they like. Genre builds on a set of expectations so people don’t start reading the ‘wrong way’. For example, readers expect a more immediate sense of story with genre fiction, and no fancy writing for the sake of literary experimentation. Or, for example, if you start reading a novel expecting it to be romance, and suddenly there is an alien invasion half way through, the reader becomes annoyed because their initial expectations of genre are disrupted. People want to read more of the things they know they like. Genre allows them to do this.
  2. Writers are able to compare and compete with one another. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to encourage people to strive for greatness. Or a bigger ego. But there’s no use comparing Jane Eyre to Ender’s Game so classification is helpful when drawing comparisons between texts.
  3. Genre creates a pecking order. Now, this isn’t exactly a benefit, but it is definitely a naturally occurring bi-product of classification. Literary fiction likes to sit at the top of this pecking order as something ‘arty’ and difficult to obtain. The different genres seem to trickle down in various combinations, depending the perceptions of a changing society. Fan fiction, chick lit, and paranormal romance seem to be fairly low on the pecking order at the moment. Despite their popularity, they are seen as ‘lesser’ forms of fiction, perhaps because of their extremely formulaic structures, or general lack of depth. Science fiction is fairly high at the moment, as long as it isn’t ‘hard’ science fiction but especially if it is dystopian science fiction, and fantasy sits comfortably beside or below this, with things like The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones making it mainstream.

Overall, genre provides a certain limitation that gives you something to react against or build upon.

Types of genre

Genre can usually be broken down into four main categories:

  1. Science fiction
  2. Horror
  3. Fantasy
  4. Literature (literary or general)

Science fiction

Speculative fiction – Today, most science fiction is re-branded as ‘speculative fiction’, taking out the failed ‘science’ part. It is a wider category that can have cross-over into all the other genres, making it more accessible and giving it the potential to be placed fairly highly on the pecking order.

Hard science fiction – Or, as Cornell puts it: novels without character! They are usually about big, enormous concepts, usually set in space (‘space opera’). It’s not the most popular sub-genre anymore.

Cyberpunk – Its heyday was during the 80s with the rise of the computer, but with such a technology-focused society, it still has resonance and interest today. It deals with the concept of hackers, cyborgs, artificial intelligence and mega-corporations. Think William Gibson, or The Matrix.

Military science fiction – As you can guess, military science fiction deals with armies, conflict and war, usually consisting of the humans as the good guys fighting aliens as the bad guys, e.g. Starship Troopers. It is mostly set in space, or on a planet other than other. Sometimes it involves only human conflict that has been created due to some otherworldly concept, e.g. the war for the control of spice in Dune. Cornell suggests that there are two main branches of military science-fiction, and a sort of progression: it has moved from conservatism (usually found in US fiction) to left wing (usually found in UK fiction). Largely, this depends on the events of the time. When countries are at war, it taps into the psyche of dehumanisation to think of war as ‘us versus them – the creatures’. Other times, fiction can be used to explore the horror or war, through the exaggeration of the differences of species to suggest the differences in culture, or simply to focus on human experience and emotion in extreme ‘alien’ situations.

"It's behind you!" - 'Starship Troopers', 1997

Steampunk – Yes, Cornell mentioned steampunk! The very genre I’m writing in at the moment. He described it as a genre that is ‘against the future, instead running to an imaged better past where we still know how everything works.’ I’m not sure about the idea of steampunk being ‘against the future’ in a sense that it runs away from it, as I think the concepts it picks up upon are often fundamentally relevant to today’s society and the potential future to which these will lead. But I think he is correct about the appeal of steampunk as immersing ourselves in a world in which we have more understanding and control. Steampunk is almost the antithesis of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk imagines a future in which technology has become out of control, whereas steampunk brings us back into a world in which machines are dangerous and industrial labour is draining, but the technology itself is easily understood and can be built and de-constructed with a basic understanding and a strong pair of hands. More strongly than that, though, I think is the appeal of these aesthetics. Great hunkering mechanical monsters, as opposed to invisible electronic pulses or tiny micro-chips.

The history of science fiction in a nutshell: It began as a way of telling people how to understand science, and slowly turned science into something everyone can understand (even if it is as simple as steam power).

Horror

According to Cornell, horror collapsed and vanished to the point that it was just Stephen King. This was partly because of splatter punk, which was so gory that it put a lot of people off horror, as they were unable to distinguish gory horror from any other type.

Cornell also hypothesised that with the rise of terrorism, the real world became a lot more scary, so people didn’t want their moments of escapism to be just as terrifying. A member of the audience challenged him on this, saying that the world has always been a scary place. Personally, I think people might shy away from horror fiction because there is enough violence and horror available through television and film these days, so that there isn’t a taboo around censorship or availability any more. Perhaps people prefer this medium for their doses of horror.

Are horror films the prefered medium over horror novels? 'Saw', 2004-2010

Cornell says that most horror writers decided to migrate into dark fantasy, which is not as associated with gore, and also provides more of the escapism that people want.

Apparently, the last world horror convention had only 100 people at it!

Cornell explains the differences between the development of horror sub-genres in minimalistic terms:

  • Horror - the protagonist will die.
  • Dark fantasy - the protagonist won’t die.
  • Urban fantasy - the protagonist is an empowered woman.
  • Paranormal romance - the empowered woman gets a shag!

The ghost story is and has always been a popular form of horror. More often than not, though, it is actually more considered literary fiction. Think of Toni Morrison’s Beloved for example.

Fantasy

Like science-fiction and horror, fantasy also has an array of subgenres, and has adapted to popularity.

Magical realism is fantasy that likes to be literature, Cornell says. The ‘realism’ grounds it, distinguishing it from the idea of pure fantasy, where anything can go because it’s magical.

High fantasy contains ‘epic posing’, as Cornell puts it; it is usually set in a completely fictional world, and the writing it full of purple prose. Tolkien is the father of high (or epic) fantasy, and the genre hasn’t moved ever since, says Cornell. ‘If you use an elf in your fantasy, you should re-invent elves!’ he says.

Urban fantasy evolved to get away from high fantasy. It is usually set in a contemporary city, bringing fantasy up-to-date and more accessible to the masses. Think Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

Remove the magic, add some grit, and high fantasy is popular again! 'Game of Thrones', 2011

Grittier fantasy mostly avoids magic altogether, and this seems to be more popular at the moment – Game of Thrones for example.

When is a genre not a genre?

When it is in an age-range, says Cornell. Young adult (YA) fiction is becoming more and more popular. It’s becoming almost a genre of its own, rather than simply an age group. Interestingly, a lot of adults read YA fiction. YA fiction does include swearing, sex and violence – its not as sheltered as some people might think. Often, they are adventurous, exciting, short and easily digestible. They feature young protagonists, but this doesn’t seem to alienate an adult readership at all. Think Harry Potter, or Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. According to Cornell, YA fiction is where most of the apocalyptic and horror novels are now found – really interesting subgenres that are often not marketed for an adult readership anymore.

There are also those authors and novels that teeter on the edge of genre. Cornell says you can decide to write science fiction or fantasy and not be associated with the genre. A lot of people sometimes don’t know what is scientifically real and what is fiction (for example, the technology used in crime programs is often way beyond current possibilities.) Authors can exist outside of genre in fiction if they are aware of the genre they are borrowing from – Margaret Atwood is often used as the best example of this. She is very knowledgeable about science-fiction as a genre, but her works are predominantly considered literary fiction, not genre fiction, because of the way she deals with concepts (and because of the marketing of her books).

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Cornell says, is like the litmus test for genre fiction. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in a near future, but it’s not considered science fiction because the cause of the apocalypse is never explained. On the surface, it looks like genre fiction. But by strict definition, it’s most likely to be literary fiction. A lot of writers aim for this careful blend – exploring genre while sitting at the ‘top’ of the pecking order. Even Stephen King, Cornell says, the King of Genre, attempted to write literary fiction (and failed, if judged by critical reception and sales figures). Despite genre writers snubbing this idea of a literary pecking order, most genre writers would admit that they want to be considered critically worthy. (A controversial topic, perhaps for another post.)

It doesn’t help that genre is often used as an insult. The people who usually do this are not well versed in genre fiction, and usually make judgements based on generalisation and assumption, in my opinion. (I admit that I do this too. Pfft, paranormal romance! What a load of rubbish. Gah! Chick lit! Awful stuff. But there is a line between knowing the type of writing you like and think is good, and making damning generalisations. Of course not all paranormal romance is ‘bad’ and not all chick lit is ‘bad’ – there are a lot of people that would angrily fight the opposite.)

Think of a book with a light blue cover. Perhaps some white detail. A woman on the front, usually in a cartoon style. Scriptive font. What type of book is that?

Genre is something that is always developing. New genre comes from hybrids. Steampunk, for example, wasn’t a term coined until the 80s, which then neatly encompassed some of the strange fiction that was straggling around in the 60s and 70s. It blended the term ‘cyberpunk’ with the main historical aesthetic of the machinery it dealt with, and a new genre was born within the further subgenre of ‘alternative history’. Genre is something that is continually complex, expanding and entwining, as a way of classifying fiction. Writers like Atwood and McCarthy could be considered helping the development of a new genre: literary genre fiction. The ultimate combination?

HG Wells at the British Library

The British Library have recently been celebrating science-fiction, with their wonderfully interesting current exhibition Out of this World (running until 25th September 2011) and various seminars. Over the past couple of months, I have attended two of these talks: ‘HG Wells: The Man Who Invented Tomorrow’ and ‘Out of this World Classics: Selected and Dissected’. Both were fairly interesting, but not ground breaking.

A few interesting insights from the panels in relation to HG Wells:

  • HG Wells was a scientist by education.
  • He was a Darwinist, but didn’t think evolution was the constant progress of Man. It could could equally be the degeneration of  Man. – David Lodge
  • The Time Machine (1895) satirizes the white man thinking he understands the natives.
  • Wells was very ill when he wrote The Time Machine. He didn’t expect to live for more than ten years due to a wrong diagnosis. This could have influenced his dystopian vision, especially the apocalyptic expanding of the sun at the end of time.
  • He then became more utopian about Darwinism as he grew healthier, but his pessimism in Mankind was restored with the revelation of the holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and other such events.
  • The savagery of war cut through utopian dreaming of building a better future after the war ended. ‘In the Days of the Comet‘ (1906) has a utopian ending, whereas ‘Mr Brittling Sees It Through‘ (1916) was written during World War I and has a much darker ending. – Steve Baxter
  • Wells prophesied mechanised warfare in The War of the Worlds (1898)
  • Wells was fascinated with war and weaponry, but said that if people just stuck to games, war shouldn’t happen. Wells was originally highly patriotic, but the more he experienced, the more horrified he became.

I’m not sure how much the talks were relevant to my dissertation, but it was useful to gain some more insight into the wider scope of the works of HG Wells. An interesting thought that arose, and is relevant to many dystopian science fiction novels is this:

‘Without technology, people assume that what is happening around them is what is happening everywhere else.’

I find that quite an interesting concept. Before the industrial revolution and the invention of the steam train, before telephones were commonplace, and way before the Internet and social media, it was increasingly difficult to be able to know much about other societies – even towns on the other side of the country. Creates a great basis for a ‘what if…?’ narrative, don’t you think?

TRON: Legacy – Enter the Digital Dystopia


WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS

We live in a time of advancing technology. With amazing digital special effects and highly developed 3D graphics, the cheesy 80s franchise TRON has been revived in a movie sequel nearly thirty years after the release of its original. But is there more to TRON: Legacy’s blockbuster success than flashy graphics? Could it be that this fun, action-packed science-fiction flick actually resounds with a deeper message, coherent with the times we live in? TRON: Legacy is not just a movie about a computer game. It’s a vision of a digital dystopia.

Flynn is the creator of an arcade game, TRON. But he’s also a technological genius and has been experimenting with creating a whole new digital world.

This extract is from Flynn’s book, Structure and Dynamics in Advanced Computer Programming: Existence of the Digital Realm:

When a mind processes a thought, its synapses flutter at fantastic speeds… Could a sentient being conceivably load his consciousness into a computer, interact with the programs within, and emerge seconds later, his loved ones none the wiser? … Quantum is the future of science. With it, digital teleportation may be possible.

Flynn sets out to create ‘the game that will end all games’. Essentially, the next step up from virtual reality. A digital reality that physically consumes the user.

Flynn does indeed manage to create this technology. He calls this digital space the ‘Grid’. He spends time in the digital universe, building it from the inside. To help him create the perfect world, he creates a program in his own image, called C.L.U (Codified Likeness Utility). Flynn’s instructions to C.L.U are simple: create the perfect system.

This statement is ingrained into C.L.U.

So when a group of ISOs (Isomorphic Algorithms) spontaneously arrive on the Grid (without ever being programmed into creation), Flynn sees them as a miracle, but C.L.U sees them as an unquantifiable threat to the development of the perfect system. And so he uses an army of programs to destroy them all.

Flynn escapes C.L.U’s violent ambush and lives as an outcast on the edges of the Grid, with the one remaining ISO, Quorra. The portal that acts as a bridge between the digital and the real world closes on Flynn, and he is trapped.

And so we have a classic dystopian world. A ruler who believes he is creating a utopia, but is actually creating a world of oppression, dictatorship and violence.

The movie picks up when Flynn’s son, Sam, enters the Grid many years later. We are presented with the already established digital dystopia. The action and suspense is created by the heroes trying to stop the dictator from crossing over to the real world, using his army to stretch his vision of perfection across the globe.

But the lines are blurred between hero and villain. C.L.U is apparently the villain, but he is not real. Technically, he’s just a computer program. He is a creation. But he is also part of Flynn:

SAM (talking about the Grid): Must have been something, until C.L.U screwed it up.
FLYNN: No, no he… he’s me. I screwed it up.

As with all computer systems, the digital brain can only know as much as its creator.

FLYNN: The thing about perfection is that it’s unknowable. It’s impossible, but it’s also right in front of you all the time. You wouldn’t know that because I didn’t, when I created you. I’m sorry, CLU. I’m sorry.

(My emphasis.) C.L.U knew everything Flynn knew when he created him. C.L.U’s vision of perfection emerges from Flynn’s unconsidered values. The difference is, when something unexpected or negative happens, which influences the system, Flynn is able to consider it and use the new information to adjust his original vision. C.L.U is unable to do this. Even though he appears to be a complex humanoid figure, capable of initiative and emotion, he doesn’t have the ability to change his core, the core that came directly from his creator. His ‘mind’ is stuck with Flynn’s original unconsidered vision. It is Flynn who provides this villainous essence. It is his past values that create the basis of the dystopia.

But as with all good dystopian movies, a mirror is held up to our own society, and in this mirror we see a warning or a lesson. TRON: Legacy contains an underlying warning about the negative repercussions of creation without the consideration of moral and social consequences.

C.L.U: I did everything you ever asked! I executed the plan!
FLYNN: As you saw it.
C.L.U: You promised that we would change the world, together. You broke your promise.
FLYNN: I know. I understand that now.
C.L.U: I took the system to its maximum potential. I created the perfect system.

It is possible that a lot of the appeal of this movie comes from these fundamental themes, which we may not be wholly conscious of, but are very relevant for the times we live in. However, as with most dystopian movies, perhaps the scariest concept is not that executed in the movie, but the knowledge that the warnings will go unheeded. Because, after all, it’s only a movie, right?

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